Lipstick on the collar. Late nights at the office. Withering emotional intimacy. Infrequent sex. The tell-tell signs of an affair used to be clear. Not so anymore.
If my therapy practice is anything to go by, more couples are seeking marital support since the onset of the pandemic. Many are reeling from the devastating impact of an infidelity. However, it is the nature of these affairs which has added to the turmoil. Several have occurred without sexual contact with another person and within the marital home.
Has the pandemic changed the way we cheat?
Infidelity is the most frequently cited cause of divorce. Understanding the impact of infidelity during the pandemic is unsurprisingly keeping us therapists busy.
One of the key predictors of infidelity is the extent to which we feel fulfilled in our relationships. It is fair to say that many individuals are more stressed than a year ago. Increases in stress will inevitably cause a decrease in sexual and marital satisfaction.
It makes sense that not only are more couples showing up for therapy but a majority have been effected by a recent infidelity.
You say potato, I say potahto
“I’ve never touched another woman” was the argument one partner put forward in his couple’s therapy recently. He hadn’t. But he had been cheating. The couple sat in my office arguing about whether one partner’s behaviour could be classified as an affair.
As a therapist, defining infidelity is simple. If you are keeping intimate, emotional or sexual secrets from your partner, there will be a breach of trust. More often than not, the breach of trust lacerates the wound far more than the act itself.
As a therapist, I let my clients define the rules of their marriage. Monogamy, polyamory, don’t ask/don’t tell, swinging, consensual non-monogamy to name a few (and I’ve seen a few which I don’t have names for). However, once those rules are defined, they become the basis of the couple’s contract. Breach it at your peril. The problem is that most couples don’t either don’t have a contract or they fail to discuss its terms relying on assumptions.
Couples need to talk
“He always knew I watched porn” was what one woman said in one of our couple sessions. That was true. But he hadn’t known it was live and interactive.
In my experience, most couples fail to clearly define the terms of their marriage contract. For this couple, if watching pornography was acceptable, was webcam sex permissible? What about sexting? Would it matter if the sexting was with a trans woman?
Most monogamous couples are clear that sex outside the relationship is off the table. However, what that means exactly is rarely discussed and if so, not in detail. As they say, the devil is often in the detail. This is where the betrayal often looms – in the detail.
I have a client whose husband had been secretly texting a work colleague for months and sharing his thoughts and feelings with her. Infidelity or not?
Couples need to discuss and define what is okay and what is not okay in their romantic relationships. There are often different assumptions in the same relationship. Women are more likely to perceive emotional affairs as threatening to their relationships than sexual affairs. On the other hand, men seem more willing to forgive an emotional affair than women.
Are we having pandemic affairs?
According to a paper recently published (Coop Gordon K, Mitchell EA.), one dating site for married individuals has seen an increase of 1,500 new members per day during the pandemic. Researchers at the Kinsey Institute have also been studying the impact of the pandemic on intimate relationships. They noted 20% of participants have contacted an ex-partner during the pandemic.
Given the amount of stress that individuals and couples are under during the pandemic, it is likely that many relationships have become strained. It follows that many individuals might be turning outside their relationships for emotional and/or sexual contact.
I do not believe that marriage was built for us to be cooped up with our loved ones, however strong the love might be. Love needs to breathe. The impact of the pandemic has led many individuals to question their identity. The media therapist Esther Perel argues that happy people also cheat and what drives them to do so is often a crisis of identity. We might be turning outside our primary relationships for meaning.
Working with couples impacted by infidelity remains some of the most challenging and life changing work I do. I am always deeply touched by a couple impacted by infidelity. Nothing quite tears us apart in the same way as a relationship betrayal.
There is evidence that a betrayed spouse may experience symptoms akin to post-traumatic stress such as obsessive thoughts, hyperarousal, flashbacks and intrusive images of the infidelity. I cannot overstate the devastating impact for an individual when they discover their reality has been tampered with. The betrayal makes the very person we are drawn to for support simultaneously a source of danger and threat. In that sense, infidelity is a betrayal trauma.
There is hope. I do not believe in the adage that once a cheat, always a cheat. Many couples work through infidelity and emerge with stronger unions than existed in the first place.
The confinement and lockdown have undoubtedly put a strain on our romantic relationships. For those relationships that were feeling the heat before the pandemic, many have burned.
It is hard to know with certainty if more of us are cheating as a result of the pandemic. Given the betrayals are more likely to be happening online, perhaps more of us are getting caught?
I do think we can use the crisis as a catalyst for change and an opportunity to talk with our spouses about the type of relationships we want going forward. It’s never too late to define or redefine our marriage contract.
Pandemic or no pandemic, infidelity is not new but how we view it has changed. Under Greek law, a betrayed husband was allowed to kill his wife’s lover. Under Roman law, an adulterous wife not only forfeited her marital rights but if she contested the divorce, she was thrown into the river. The women who floated or swam away were innocent and those who drowned were deemed guilty. Sadly, not much was written about what to do with the cheating husbands. I’ll leave that part to the imagination.
This article appeared first in Monaco Life